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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Scientists Track Shorebird into Hurricane Irene

Here's a cool press release I just received.

(photo: Mike Baird)

(Williamsburg, VA)---Scientists have tracked a migrating shorebird into Hurricane Irene. The shorebird, a whimbrel migrating from Canada to South America left Southampton Island in upper Hudson Bay on Saturday, flew out over the open ocean and appears to have encountered the outer bands of Irene on Tuesday. The bird named Chinquapin flew through the dangerous northeast quadrant of the storm during the day on Wednesday. It is being tracked by a small satellite transmitter and is scheduled to transmit a new set of positions within the next day. In 2010 this same bird flew around Tropical Storm Colin while a second bird flew into the storm and did not survive.

The long-term tracking study has documented several previous encounters between whimbrel and major storms. Earlier in August one of the birds flew through Tropical Storm Gert in the North Atlantic. This bird encountered high headwinds for 27 hours averaging only 9 miles per hour. Once through the storm, flight speed increased to more than 90 miles per hour as the bird was pushed by significant tail winds and made it back to Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In 2008, a bird was tracked into Hurricane Hanna and landed in the Bahamas only to be hit later by Hurricane Ike.

Updated tracking maps may be viewed online.

How migratory birds navigate around and survive major storm systems has been an open question to science. Achieving an understanding of this process is important because the Caribbean Basin is a major flyway for many bird species moving from breeding grounds in North American to winter in South America and their migrations coincide with the period of highest hurricane formation. Changes in storm frequency, intensity, or distribution may have implications for timing and routes of migratory movements.

This tracking project is a collaborative effort between The Center for Conservation Biology, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, and Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences.

UPDATE: The Whimbrel made it safely through the storm!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Sample Nature Observation Blog Post

This fall I am teaching a Diversity of Life course at Rosemont College in Philadelphia. My students will each be required to create a Nature Observation Blog, where they will post their observations of at least 15 animals, 15 plants, and 10 other organisms that they can find, identify, and observe during September. I will post links to my student's pages once they are up. Here is a sample of the type of posts they will be creating for each observation:

Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina)

I found this turtle while birding at Peace Valley Park, Bucks County, PA on 27 April 2011. It was in the middle of a grassy trail through the woods--about 3 yards from the closest bushes on either side of the trail. When I first observed it, the turtle seemed alert, raised up high on its legs with its neck extended up high. I watched it for a few minutes through my binoculars, at about 15 yards away. As I got closer, it slowly pulled into its shell. It remained tightly pulled back into its shell as I picked it up. After I put it down, I walked off about 10 yards and continued to watch it for a few minutes, but it didn't come back out while I was still there.

What was the turtle doing out in the open? Why was it alert--had it already seen me before I had seen it? When do box turtles assume this alert position? What sensory methods (sight, vibration, etc.) are most important for box turtles? How do they use those methods to detect and interact with their environment? How old and what sex is this turtle? How does box turtle coloration vary by age and sex?

Scientific Research
Stickel, Lucille F. Populations and Home Range Relationships of the Box Turtle, Terrapene c. carolina (Linnaeus), Ecological Monographs, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Oct., 1950), pp. 351-378

Stickel found that the average home range for a male turtle was 330 feet in diameter, while that of a female was 370 feet, so looks like this turtle isn't going to be going very far--though she found that turtles do sometimes make extended trips outside of their home range. The ranges of turtles overlapped, so perhaps there are other turtles nearby, and they like to have a nice open spot for sunning themselves in their home range, so perhaps this turtle was sunning itself when I found it there in the open.

Further Information
Pennsylvania Herp Identification
National Zoo

Friday, August 12, 2011

How Long Do House Sparrows Live?

This morning while watching my House Sparrow nursery out back, I noticed the young out in the open on my patio. They are sort of watching the sky, but not really. More focused on their own little activities--crushing seeds, pecking at stuff, chasing each other, etc. Made me wonder how well these little guys survive.

The answer--not so well. According to Lowther & Cink (2006) only 20% of young House Sparrows survive their first year. So, if those young sparrows don't look like they are all that careful, guess what, they probably aren't! If they can make it through their first year, adult sparrows have a 57% chance of making it through the next year.

It's tough being a baby sparrow, though they don't look too worried about it!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Mysterious House Sparrow Calls

I made a more valiant effort today to get to know my bird of the week and actually spent some time out on the porch watching sparrows. I saw some quick indirect scratching, bill wiping, and other behaviors. But the more I watched, the more puzzled I became. It was clear that I had no idea what these birds are doing out there. At one point there was a male up in the top of a holly tree, calling fairly consistently with some type of a "cheep" call, while a female hoped around in a slightly lower branch making some kind of a lower pitched "churr" call. When I got a better look at the female it was clear she had something in her beak, so I thought she might be carrying food to young in a nest. But she stayed up there churrping and moving about repeatedly for over 15 minutes. Eventually the male flew off to land on the ground in a neighbor's yard. I never did figure out what the female was up to.

As I listened to the sparrow calls, I could tell that there were many different types of subtle differences in the calls, but it was tough to focus on them. Afterwards, I went to to listen to House Sparrow calls and the mystery deepened. Paul Driver's bird calls website gave me more samples to listen to, but I am still left scratching my head. I guess I've known forever that House Sparrows make a lot of different sounds, but I never paid them any attention. And now that I'm trying to sort them out, it is a bit bewildering. So much to learn, so much I don't know about these common little neighbors in my yard!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

House Sparrow Appreciation Take 2

Somehow I got all the way through the day without attending to my bird of the week, so after dinner I went out on the porch to see what I could find out about my local House Sparrows.

According to Lowther & Cink 2006, House Sparrows congregate for 30-60 minutes before heading to their roost, arriving at their roost 30-15 minutes before sunset. My local sunset tonight is 20:05 EDT, so I was out about an hour before that. There were a half dozen young House Sparrows on the utility lines behind my house and another couple birds chirping in the bushes. After about 5 minutes they had all dropped down out of sight except for one lone bird on top of a power pole. And the birds were quiet. After a few more minutes, as I was watching the last bird on the pole, it too dropped down. As I lowered my binocular I saw a Sharp-shinned Hawk swoop lazily past the pole. Had the other birds seen the bird approaching minutes earlier, or was it just a coincidence?

A few minutes after the hawk had left, 14 House Sparrows took off out of my neighbors bushes flying to the southwest fast and direct, about 50 feet up, down the alley and out of sight. Were they heading off to a congregations site in the neighborhood? Might be fun to see if I can find a local roost.

So I wouldn't say I was that diligent in my House Sparrow appreciation so far, but I'm getting better. I'll see how much better I can do tomorrow!

Other birds flying over my house this evening: Barn Swallow, Chimney Swift, Fish Crow, Canada Goose.

My 30th Birdiversary!

Thirty years ago today I became a birder! While I had been a casual birdwatcher for awhile, it was the junior high school trip to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge thirty years ago that, depending on our perspective, either came to define or ruin the rest of my life!

Who knew when the two vans full of kids and teachers pulled out from Oregon City for the five day field trip to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and Steens Mountain that thirty years later one of those kids would still look back on that day with such importance!

We stopped off at a cave near Bend on the way over, and by evening we were at the refuge field station. I still remember we had spaghetti with zucchini in it for dinner that night. Common Nighthawks were roosting on the utility lines as we waited for dinner to be ready. I still can't smell sagebrush without being whisked back there. Since this was the first day that I started keeping a real bird list, I can actually look back to see what birds we saw that day!

American Crow
American Robin
Western Scrub-Jay
European Starling
House Sparrow
Black-capped Chickadee
Turkey Vulture
Rock Pigeon
Violet-green Swallow
Western Grebe
Yellow-headed Blackbird
American Coot
American Kestrel
Barn Swallow
Black-billed Magpie
Burrowing Owl
California Quail
Canada Goose
Clark's Nutcracker
Common Nighthawk
Evening Grosbeak
Great Blue Heron
Great Horned Owl
Mourning Dove
Red-tailed Hawk
Red-winged Blackbird
Ring-necked Pheasant
Song Sparrow

It's been a wild and crazy ride since then! As a new birder, it wasn't easy to keep a mental picuture of all the new birds I saw that week. But some like the Burrowing Owl and the nighthawk are still fresh in my mind. Others like my first Western Grebe and Evening Grosbeak are way back in the musty recesses where they aren't readily available. I wish I could still remember my first coot, but I don't. It's like those first childhood memories--hard to really say why some stick and others don't. But even if I don't remember them, I have them written down, so I know they were there for my very first day or real birding.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

House Sparrow Appreciation FAIL

So it was a rainy day and I only had a few moments to watch for House Sparrows in my back yard. Not wanting to slight my chosen bird of the week, I dove into the best online sparrow reference out there:

Lowther, Peter E. and Calvin L. Cink. 2006. House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

I was all set to learn some fascinating things to help me better appreciate House Sparrows when I came upon this little tidbit about sparrow diet:
Nestling diet almost all invertebrate prey, especially Diptera larvae

For those of you not up on your insect classification, Diptera are flies. Fly larvae are...maggots!

Baby sparrows are maggot eaters! Ugh!

House Sparrow Appreciation FAIL! Back to the article, and I vow to spend more time outside watching the birds tomorrow!

Monday, August 08, 2011

Bird of the Week: House Sparrow

(Photo: Dave-F)

I was looking out my window this morning and noticed I have a regular sparrow nursery in my backyard.

I live in an urban row home in Bucks County, PA so I only have a tiny backyard. But this morning there was a lot of activity. House Sparrows adults and juveniles were on the patio and in the grass, a juvenile Song Sparrow came through, a juvenile Chipping Sparrow was up on a utility line near the alley, and House Finches came through with young as well. As a birder, I'm a bit ashamed to admit that I don't really know House Sparrows very well. They aren't a bird that most of us spend much time getting to know, even though we may see them every single day. So join me this week as I explore the world of the House Sparrow. I'll be reading up on them, but more importantly spending some time with them in my yard and elsewhere. If you are like me, you may want to take a moment to reconnect--or perhaps connect for the first time, with these birds as well.

For reading:
For viewing:
If they aren't in your yard, go to any urban park or strip mall--look for buildings, concrete, and hedges or bushes.

House Sparrow Week Posts:
House Sparrow Appreciation FAIL!
House Sparrow Appreciation Take 2
How Long do House Sparrows Live?
Mysterious House Sparrow Calls

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Gray-hooded Gull chase

So this morning I finally had some free time to chase the Gray-hooded Gull on Coney Island, first found July 24 and relocated this past weekend (see this NY Times article). By the time I got the kids in the car, it was already late, but two hours later we rolled across the Verrazano Bridge and down to Coney Island. We walked out onto the boardwalk and spotted the crowd of birders down near the Wonder Wheel at the end of 12th Street. And there was the bird. Sitting on a pole. Calm as can be, with people standing 40 feet away. I didn't have a good camera, so all I could get were these few pics through my Android phone.

After 10 minutes of enjoying the bird, the kids were ready for something else, and since we were already at the beach...

On the way back to the car later the gull was on top of the restrooms at the end of 12th Street.

One last pic just to get the feel for the day.

This is only the second Gray-hooded Gull reported from North America. Normally found in South America and Africa, the first North American record came from Florida in 1998 (pdf). If you aren't satisfied with my photos of this current rarity, there are plenty of better shots online from folks with real cameras :-)

Additional posts about this bird:
Anything Larus
Birding Dude
A DC Birding Blog


Monday, August 01, 2011

Eastern Screech-Owl Capital of the World

I just found out from Bill Etter that our 2010 Upper Bucks Christmas Bird Count set a new record for the most Eastern Screech-Owls reported on a count. Our 237 owls beats the old record of 220 Eastern Screech-Owls found on the Lynchburg, VA CBC in 1976. 17 of those 237 Eastern Screech-Owls were mine, found on my portion of the count circle near my home in Perkasie, PA. I guess it's official, I live in the middle of the Eastern Screech-Owl capital of the world!

(Photo: Wikipedia)
Nature Blog Network Fatbirder's Top 1000 Birding Websites